Brussels, 6 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- EU foreign ministers will hold an unprecedented hour-long discussion on Belarus to examine ways of putting pressure on the country to democratize.
While no immediate sanctions will be announced, a draft declaration seen by RFE/RL says an existing visa ban affecting some top officials could be extended if the 2006 presidential elections are not free and fair. The EU also holds out the threat of an asset freeze.
Emma Udwin, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, tells RFE/RL the EU is watching with "great concern" the run-up to the presidential elections, which the commission believes is a "key period" for the country.
"The EU is still reeling over the declarations by President Ahmedinejad on the subject of Israel. We found his remarks deeply shocking and wholly unacceptable."
"The council discussion on Monday -- which will be an hour-long debate, reflecting the importance the EU attaches to this issue -- will, I think, look at what exactly we want to see in Belarus in the run-up to the elections -- the free and fair treatment of candidates, the equal treatment of candidates, the positive response to the possibility of an international observation mission from the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe]. These are some of the things that I think will be raised, that we would like to see in the run-up to the elections."
Another Brussels official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the problem presented by the authoritarian regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on the EU's eastern border is now a "mainstream issue" in EU foreign relations. Belarus' elevation on the list of EU concerns is largely attributed to the efforts of the current British EU presidency, which sets the foreign ministers' agenda.
Diplomats say there are growing calls within the EU to apply more pressure on Minsk. Poland, especially, is seen as
leading this effort.
However, the prevailing mood within the EU is still to wait with punitive measures. One official said that if sanctions were applied now, the Minsk regime "would simply go ahead and do what it wants regardless."
Spokeswoman Udwin says the EU is also being careful not to alienate the Belarusian population as a whole: "Member states will also discuss how ready they feel to take further restrictive measures -- bearing in mind that our strategy has always been to avoid broad economic sanctions that can harden the population -- with whom we have no quarrel whatsoever. But rather, to target any action on those who are responsible. We hope that there is no cause for any such action to be taken and that we can see international standards respected in Belarus as the population deserves."
This is why, EU officials say, they prefer to talk about "restrictive measures" rather than sanctions. Sanctions, they
fear, could easily be presented by Minsk as targeting the country and its people, rather than the leadership responsible for the breaches of international standards the EU wants to punish.
The EU has had a limited visa ban in place since 2004, which currently affect six Minsk officials considered responsible for the disappearance of four pro-democracy activists, as well as last year's crackdown on demonstrators.
Poland has led calls to include another five officials in the ban for their role in suppressing nongovernmental organizations -- among them Polish minority groups.
Commission officials say the EU is also refocusing the limited assistance it currently provides Belarus. Brussels is already shifting an increasing proportion of aid money into funds which can be used without the need to consult the Belarusian government first. When the EU adopts its next budget for 2007-2013, overall spending on such projects is likely to become more flexible and independent of the whims of the governments of recipient countries.
Belarus is likely to remain a long-term problem for the EU. A member state diplomat notes that the EU needs to look beyond the best-case scenario for the 2006 elections -- as even a fully free and fair poll would likely return Lukashenka to power.
On another mater, officials say the EU is still looking to rebuild confidence with Tehran in the wake of Iran's resumption of work on the nuclear fuel cycle in the summer.
However, the ministers' discussion will also take place under the shadow of the remarks made last month by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedinejad, in which he said Israel should be "wiped off the map." As one official noted on 4 November, Ahmedinejad's comments "go in the opposite direction" from EU attempts at resuming dialogue with Iran.
European Commission spokeswoman Udwin tells RFE/RL that the ministers are likely to once again express their outrage at Ahmedinejad's comments.
"The EU is still reeling over the declarations by President Ahmedinejad on the subject of Israel." she said. "We found his remarks deeply shocking and wholly unacceptable. It is a matter of deep concern because the Middle East is one of the four priority areas that we have always spelled out as the prerequisites for a deeper EU-Iran relationship."
The other three priority areas for the EU are human rights, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. The EU has said for years
that Iran's cooperation on all four is essential if it wants to build closer links.
Udwin said that, despite the continuing downturn in relations, the EU is still seeking to reopen talks with Tehran with the
goal of returning to a full suspension of all fuel-cycle activities, including the processing and enrichment of uranium: "Our attention is still with the nuclear issue, where what we would most like to see is a diplomatic solution to this problem. But we can only get back round the negotiating table if Iran abides by the resolution in September of the Board of Governors of the IAEA, of the [UN's] atomic energy authority.
It is extremely important that Iran should do so, and do so rapidly." Reports from Tehran today said Iran had sent a letter formally asking Britain, France, and Germany to reopen the stalled talks on its nuclear program.
Officials say the foreign ministers will tomorrow also examine ways of improving contacts with civil society groups inside
Regarding Syria, officials say the EU ministers will tomorrow adopt what has been described as a "very tough" declaration on Syria. It will note that the EU finds the recent report of UN investigator Detlev Mehlis into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri "extremely worrying," according to an EU diplomat.
The EU will call on Syria to fully cooperate with international investigators and open up its own planned inquiry to
Syria will also be urged to play a more positive role in promoting regional stability. EU officials say this means Damascus must actively support the political process in Iraq and clamp down on the movement of insurgent combatants to Iraq; refrain from intervention in Lebanon; and prevent armed groups involved in the Middle East from operating on its soil.
EU officials say that, in view of the toughening EU stance vis-a-vis Syria, there is currently no prospect of a signature of the association agreement initialed by both sides in late 2004.
On the Middle East, the EU ministers will hear a report from a fact-finding mission that visited Palestine over the weekend to look at ways the EU could send a monitoring mission to the border between Gaza and Egypt. Both the Palestinian Authority and Israel have said they would welcome such a mission.
Officials say it remains unclear as yet what experts the EU could contribute and in what numbers.